Today is the first day of school in Cambridge. Like every parent - and policy maker - I have a larger range of questions and emotions than in most years. How will our children engage, learn, and connect with peers? When can everyone safely return to in-person learning? Can we meet the growing mental health and social needs of our young people? How will we sustain our educators and staff? Despite a spring and summer full of School Committee work, there are many unknowns, most of which are the result of the broader uncertainties in the world, but some of which are of our own district’s making.
Here are a few key developments since I last wrote:
- We are preventing the spread of Covid-19. In early August, the School Committee passed the Superintendent’s reopening plan with seven contingencies. In short, we said that no one would return to learning inside of school buildings until it was safe. CPSD has more sophisticated health metrics than most districts and a much stronger surveillance testing plan, thanks to Mayor Siddiqui’s months of pushing for it. The School Committee will soon take up air ventilation thresholds and mitigation measures.
Just last night, we heard updates from the Superintendent on planning for substantially separate special education classrooms, supervised remote learning spaces, and social emotional learning, which we required be collaboratively designed with scholars, families and community partners. To get a taste of the wisdom of our young people, check out their recommendations in the series of School Climate Subcommittee meetings I facilitated on supporting the mental health of our youth.
[Hear these CRLS scholars and others here.]
- The School Committee also completed its annual performance review of Superintendent Salim. You can view our conversation here. I am eager to see the Superintendent (and all his successors) benefit from feedback from cabinet members, principals, and teachers, as well as caregivers and community partners with whom he works closely, rather than only from Committee Members. The Vice Chair will be appointing an ad hoc committee to put together such a “360 degree” process.
- We had the pleasure of hearing from Educator Collaboratives earlier this month. The Collaboratives are teams of teachers in a particular elementary grade or subject area working across the city’s schools to develop standards-aligned curricula and lessons that are rigorous, joyful and culturally responsive. These teachers have created documents that will help families understand what their children are supposed to be learning at each grade level. As someone whose other job is supporting collaboration between district, charter and Catholic school educators in Boston, I believe that these collaboratives exemplify the best of using this crisis as an opportunity; we will do a better job supporting and retaining teachers simply by giving them time to learn from one another, and our children will benefit.
[‘Some of the Cambridge educators participating in Educator Collaboratives.]
The challenges ahead are plentiful. And, tired as every caregiver, educator, administrator and elected official is, I remain deeply committed to helping our young scholars learn and connect. Knowing that growth is rarely linear, I expect there will be further bumps as our administrators try new scheduling techniques, educators refine their remote practices, and school staff start routine check-ins with families. Our School Committee has additional work to do, too, in healing racial harm to CRLS students from last year and to the Educators of Color Coalition last month. As I think about the organizational culture changes I want to see in our district, I remain interested in having the Committee, administration and schools adopt more restorative practices.
Much has been said about how the Covid-19 pandemic and the era of racial reckoning have exposed our interconnectedness. Let us use these crises to build the relationships that support our young scholars, the adults who guide them, and the community which we collectively comprise. Time to build back our district better!
(From left: Mayor Siddiqui, myself, and Member Wilson at a Back to School Resource Fair)
Where should we start? The School Committee is considering many important policy items, the most timely among them being the forthcoming recommendation from Superintendent Salim for how our young scholars and educators return to school next month. Will they spend some of their days at school and some at home? Will we begin all instruction remotely?
The Superintendent’s proposals have evolved in recent days in response to critical feedback from the Educators of Color Coalition, the Cambridge Families of Color Coalition, scientists on the COVID-19 Taskforce, and countless others. This slide outlines options his team is evaluating. They are likely to be revised further before the School Committee meets tomorrow.
You may be wondering how I think we should return to school. As with all of my colleagues, my priorities are to keep our loved ones safe and healthy and to build the relationships and learning communities that will help our young people grow. Having followed the scientific news and had the privilege of conversing with local epidemiologists in recent months, I understand that we need to create layers of protective measures so that, if one fails, the others will still protect members of our community. The district has been working tirelessly and has some of these protective measures in place. For example, the Chief Operating Officer has secured upwards of 27,000 masks. His team also has installed hand washing stations and sanitizer dispensers all over each of our schools.
[Image from “What Back to School Might Look Like in the Age of Covid-19,” illustrated by Yuliya Parshina-Kottas, NYT July 29, 2020]
Two other protective measures that would increase my own confidence in in-person learning are Covid-19 testing and the improvement of air ventilation. We are incredibly lucky that the Broad Institute is part of our community and stands ready to help us with surveillance testing. We should take advantage of this resource. Knowing that the virus can remain afloat in a room that is not well ventilated, we also need to ensure each classroom, common space (including bathrooms) and work space has adequate air flow before we send our children and dedicated staff into buildings.
[Image from “What Back to School Might Look Like in the Age of Covid-19,” illustrated by Yuliya Parshina-Kottas, NYT July 29, 2020]
I agree with Dr. Salim that we probably will not want to remain in remote learning mode until we have a vaccine, as that could mean another 18-24 months of learning from home. While I am not ready to send our loved ones into buildings in early September, I do believe we can return them there when we have the above safety measures in place, assuming local transmission remains at its current level or lower. In the meantime, I will continue pushing for students who are not well served by remote learning to convene in schools in small groups (outside of buildings as much as possible), and for all families and teachers to connect individually.
That is my current thinking. I reserve the right to revise my recommendations as we all learn more about how this virus works.
Tomorrow night’s School Committee meeting (agenda item 9) includes two policies I’ve drafted that flow from what I’ve outlined above:
- Motion 20-207 calls upon the district to engage an HVAC and respiratory pathogen expert to review our school ventilation systems. It also requires the district to provide public school-by-school data on air quality in each room as well as plans for mitigations. Mayor Siddiqui co-sponsored this motion.
- Motion 20-206 updates district policy so that programs like First Work that provide stipends will give priority to young people who qualify for free or reduced lunch and other income-based supports. If adopted, this motion also would encourage CPSD, City and non-profit partners to generate additional opportunities for stipending young people whose families have low incomes. Possibilities include paying high school scholars for mentoring younger children, stipending student members of boards and commissions, and underwriting training costs for Red Cross babysitting. Mayor Siddiqui and Member Wilson co-sponsored this motion.
[Committee via Zoom]
Working collaboratively with my colleagues, I’ve co-sponsored additional motions to:
- Engage the Broad Institute in surveillance testing.
- Coordinate childcare during remote learning days.
- Inventory spaces outside of CPSD that could be used for teaching and learning.
- Extend the MCAS (standardized testing) moratorium another year.
- Define a set of “power standards” that teachers use for instruction this year.
There is much more that caregivers, scholars, educators, scientists, administrators, and elected officials are discussing. Many of us have been pushing to make shifts to anti-racist teaching as we grapple with Covid-19. We were dedicated to dismantling the district’s white supremacy culture prior to the pandemic, and the pandemic may help this work, since we have to rethink school from top to bottom now.
In closing, while local community leaders have taken a crash course in public health, I believe we would not be in this predicament if we had reliable federal leadership. I encourage you to VOTE in the primary on September 1st -- and to do so safely by mail. The deadline to register for a mail ballot is August 26th. You can reach the Cambridge Election Commission at (617) 349-4361 with any questions. Vote in memory of Representative John Lewis. Vote like our lives depend on it, because they do.
I hope this finds you well, safe and energized to make change!
Many of you have questions and concerns about the coming school year. While I do not have concrete answers for you yet, I want to provide some information about the process underway.
As you may know, CPSD is required to submit three plans to the state, one for fully in-person learning, one for fully remote learning, and one for a "hybrid" of the two. Superintendent Salim presented his two emerging hybrid proposals to the School Committee last week.
You can see the Superintendent’s slides here.
I am eager to hear the administration's vision for the in-person and remote plans as well, knowing that, whatever plan we begin with, public health conditions are likely to fluctuate. I am sending questions and recommendations daily to the Superintendent, as I listen to the many caregivers who want a full-time return to school buildings as well as the educators who are afraid of the risks associated with returning. We are unlikely to be able to satisfy everyone’s desires, but we must meet the health, safety and educational needs of our children, families and employees. We are incredibly fortunate to live in Cambridge, one of the few districts not to make budget cuts this spring. Let us be creative and resourceful in working with our district’s talented educators, out of school time partners, other city departments, and, most importantly, our scholars and caregivers to find the best way through this unprecedented time. (And, let’s push state and federal policy makers to prioritize a safe opening of schools, which likely means slowing the opening of some businesses, such as casinos and gyms.)
One promising development is the passage of motion 20-144 last month. This policy (which I authored, Mayor Siddiqui and Member Wilson co-sponsored, and the Committee passed unanimously) will mean that, for the first time, every scholar/family will have a weekly check-in with a trusted adult from their school to prevent any of our children from falling through the cracks at a time when we are creating new paths forward. The administration will present its emerging proposal for how to implement weekly check-ins at each grade span (JK-2, 3-5, 6-8, 9-12) at our School Climate Subcommittee meeting on July 15th. If you would like to participate, please sign up here.
As always, I welcome your feedback, questions and ideas.
P.S. I promised my daughter I would mention her most recent activism and urge you not to shop at Whole Foods. She and several other Cambridge Public Schools students have participated in protests outside of stores because the company will not allow employees to wear Black Lives Matter masks. Whole Foods sends home any employee who will not remove their mask, and being sent home too many times is grounds for firing. This is the epitome of hypocrisy, as the corporation states that they believe Black lives matter.
Black lives matter. Black families matter. Black scholars matter. Black educators matter.
Elijah Booker, one of the young men who organized the powerful, peaceful rally with My Brother's Keeper on Cambridge Common this past weekend, called for leadership, accountability and action. Young people deserve that and so much more - peace, joy, freedom, academic and financial success, just to name a few things.
Let us use this moment of global crisis, when racial and socioeconomic disparities are spotlighted and everyone is paying attention, to shift culture, policy and practices. Let us be bold in our advocacy for opportunity and justice.
My Sister-in-Service, Ayesha Wilson, and I wrote the OpEd linked here last week. Our Cambridge Chronicle piece applies an anti-racist lens to the FY21 Cambridge Public Schools budget and to the current key hiring decisions. It also points to the need to redefine school altogether in light of such factors as COVID-19 and the nature of real jobs in the twenty-first century. The City Council approved the schools budget at its meeting last Wednesday.
I am pleased to share that the School Committee unanimously passed motion 20-95, which I authored with sponsorship from Members David Weinstein and Ayesha Wilson. The motion supports state legislation to strengthen voting by mail, encourages voters to register to cast ballots through the mail, provides 16-year-olds at the high school with voter pre-registration forms, and, because some of our schools are polling places, charges the School Committee’s Buildings and Grounds Subcommittee to work with the Elections Commission and Public Health Department to propose plans for both voters and school community members to stay safe on Election Days.
Finally, if you missed our virtual town hall on supporting young people’s mental health in this challenging time, you can catch it here. Our scholars did a great job leading a mindfulness meditation and asking difficult questions. Our panel of therapists shared helpful perspectives and tips. I am grateful to Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui for convening the series of Mental Health Mondays in May.
As we head into summer, our School Committee work will heat up this year instead of diminish, as it normally does in summertime. We must plan for delivering stronger remote instruction, anticipating that at least some of the next school year will be remote. I am eager for Superintendent Salim to answer numerous questions, including:
- How does he propose we design our classrooms and schools to keep scholars, educators and families healthy?
- How does he propose we make remote-learning more engaging for scholars?
- How does he propose we meet the needs of scholars with special rights (due to disability or language needs)?
- And, again, how will we utilize the opportunity in this moment to bring the institution that is “school” into the 21st century, both in terms of closing opportunity gaps and in terms of preparing our young people for success in life?
As always, I welcome your feedback, questions and ideas.
I hope that the blooming of spring has boosted your spirits. Please let me know if I can assist you with school-related - or other! - struggles. We all are served by remembering that, in addition to wanting to show up for one another, we feel better when we help each other.
My heart was warmed learning that a woman who saw lunch distribution underway started making cloth masks for children and families. Another stranger brought us Dunkin’ coffee on a raw, rainy day.
Since I last wrote, the School Committee postponed our vote on the FY21 school budget. We wanted a deeper understanding of how the administration was adjusting plans based on the pandemic, since the proposed budget was created prior to school buildings closing. Mayor Siddiqui called for a series of special meetings focused on COVID-19 response, of which the first two were held this week.
Here are a few meeting notes:
- At our regular May 5th meeting, the Superintendent presented what the district has done to date. I introduced motion 20-71, co-sponsored by the Mayor and Member Wilson, that would have required weekly, individual outreach to all CPS students as part of the universal tier of intervention. I know many of our teachers and schools are moving mountains to connect with students and believe every child would benefit from such connection. From such outreach, staff could identify students who need further support. Upon hearing from the administration and school leaders that they felt this was an onerous “one size fits all” approach, the Committee referred the motion to the Superintendent. He is to report back with a recommendation of how to proceed at our regular meeting on May 19th.
- At both the regular meeting and the first special meeting on responding to COVID-19, we heard a diverse set of personal truths. During public comment, caregivers spoke to their concerns about their children facing irreparable gaps in education. Principals and teachers spoke to how their jobs have transformed overnight and they are challenged to adapt despite their ‘round the clock work. Members of our Special Education Parent Advisory Council, My Brother’s Keeper Cambridge, and Building Equity Bridges spoke to the heightened issues of equity and need for inclusive planning.
- While the administration outlined the multitude of considerations that must be addressed in contingency plans at the first special meeting, most of the evening was dedicated to hearing what is happening currently in schools. My colleagues and I requested detailed plans for multiple scenarios, including continued remote learning, a staggered return, and rolling closures. I am eager to hear more specifics at the special meetings this coming Tuesday and Thursday. You can sign up to watch or contribute public comment here.
- I was honored to be a guest for Representative Marjorie Decker’s virtual town hall focused on education. Former Education Secretary Paul Reville outlined the challenges and opportunities of this moment, many of which I have been discussing with caregivers and educators. You can watch the one-hour session here.
While my long-term sights remain set on how we can redesign school to be more engaging, inclusive, and impactful, my short-term actions are largely focused on the widely-expected coming mental health surge. I’ve heard from elementary school parents who report their children “wish they were dead,” and from upper school parents whose children are feeling increasingly isolated and depressed. Some of our high school students are anxious about preparing for college, some are grieving the loss of an in-person prom and graduation. Given this context, I’ve been partnering with Mayor Siddiqui and CHA to provide “Mental Health Mondays” throughout this month. Last Monday, I represented the School Committee for an overview session. This Monday, the panel will focus on mental health in communities of color. For Monday, May 18th, I have been arranging a panel of therapists and teachers to take questions from students and families about enduring this difficult time. Please submit your questions here and tune in to CCTV Channel 9 from 3-4p.
Connection and community will see us through this hard time, so please stay in touch!
I hope this finds you well and safe. Please reach out to me if you are struggling to secure support from the schools or elsewhere. Really.
I invite you to take literally one minute to stop and breathe before reading further.
Here is a lovely, short video to help.
As was true for our last newsletter, there are two major categories of updates: the Covid-19 remote schooling and the FY21 budget. I expect this will be the case for the whole spring.
Let’s start with coronavirus and remote schooling. This is a stressful, challenging time for all of us. I am hearing of students, parents and teachers who are struggling mightily - and we should expect their numbers to grow. Teachers, administrators, non-profit partners and others are working round-the-clock, but we are not yet as coordinated as we should be. Thursday morning, the School Climate Subcommittee, which I chair, met to share efforts across the school district, Agenda for Children and Cambridge Health Alliance. Among other topics, we discussed the tiering of mental health supports. I have been advocating for weekly 1:1 outreach from someone at the school to each student/family, so am pleased that this is something all families can expect, along with access to age appropriate, school-based groups and online tools. There is much more to be done to support our community through this crisis, including determining how to help our teachers sustain themselves, so stay tuned.
(Alice Cohen is the CPSD Lead Teacher for Social Emotional Learning. The context she provided during this meeting is useful for everyone. She speaks at the 1 hour 3 minute mark.)
Beyond the immediate need we all have for mental health assistance, we have a moral imperative to use this pandemic to rethink and strengthen relationships among our educators, students and families in a manner that will close racial and socioeconomic disparities in our schools. I elaborate on this in the column I wrote for the Cambridge Chronicle this week, linked here.
Closing racial and socioeconomic gaps and making the Cambridge Public Schools an anti-racist district is also the lens with which I analyze the Superintendent’s proposed budget. The entire School Committee and administration wants these outcomes, and we have different perspectives on the most effective strategies for reaching them. As I see it, transforming the district requires a substantial culture shift. Having tried top-down reforms for generations and seeing persistent disparities, we should be working collaboratively to identify policies and practices that both close gaps and dismantle white supremacy culture. We are blessed to be in a community in which teachers, students and families are eager to do this work and are doing so. I am urging Superintendent Salim to adjust his proposed budget to sustain and expand efforts such as the Educators of Color Coalition, Equity Fellows, Building Equity Bridges and Level Up. We need to endorse the engagement of these leaders and bolster their work so that the to-be-hired Chief Equity Officer can access a deep base of community knowledge and a dynamic, deeply committed coalition. The findings of current efforts must inform the development of district-wide anti-racist, equity and inclusion plans.
The budget timeline has, understandably, shifted due to the coronavirus. Having heard from many families that they needed time to review the proposed budget, I proposed adding a second public hearing date and multiple other means for collecting input. I’m pleased that the Budget Co-Chairs added a second hearing date and the Committee adopted it. That means that public testimony is welcome this coming Tuesday, April 14th. The form to sign up is here. We haven’t yet adopted innovative ways for soliciting other feedback, so I encourage sending emails to the entire School Committee at [email protected]
On other fronts, I’m working with Mayor Siddiqui, Vice Mayor Mallon, Member Wilson and the administration to ensure we provide meals to families over the April school vacation. A similar team is focused on how to best engage out-of-school-time partners, and Member Weinstein’s Subcommittee on Curriculum and Achievement (of which I’m a member) will be meeting regarding expectations for remote learning next week.
In closing, I invite your ideas for innovative ways to build community during this time. I wish you a happy Passover, Easter, (almost) Ramadan and spring. We will get through this.
For many of us, the most timely school-related issue is the unfolding coronavirus. You may have received the Superintendent’s direct communications to families (if not, sign up here). This past Tuesday night, the School Committee also unanimously passed two “late orders” (timely motions that are submitted past the deadline for regular agenda items) related to the Covid-19 pandemic. One order specified handwashing opportunities and supplies needed for all Cambridge Public Schools. The other, which I co-sponsored with Member David Weinstein and Vice Chair Manikka Bowman, called upon the district to remain in constant communication with public health agencies and to update the School Committee on plans -- and the implementation status of such plans -- at each of our meetings until the pandemic has passed, as well as to ensure that hourly employees are not negatively impacted by school closures, and that, in the case of school closures, we provide for the needs of students and families who rely upon school meals. While no one knows how this virus will impact Cambridge, we are fortunate that our city has abundant resources and expertise to respond. I am grateful for the parents who testified at Tuesday’s meeting and the young woman who reached out to volunteer to help clean schools. We will fare better in meeting this challenge if we come together for that purpose, which I believe we will.
(CLRS Falcons came in 2nd Saturday night in the North Girls Basketball Finals. Impressive team!!!)
A more predictable challenge at this time of year is the shaping of the district’s budget. As of last month’s newsletter, Committee Members were receiving orientation from the administration as well as hearing from families and educators about their budget priorities. The conversation has heated up since then. At a joint School Committee-City Council roundtable February 11th, it was abundantly clear to me that all these stakeholders are requesting a budget that is framed in terms of measurable, equitable outcomes for all our students. A few of the strategic investments for which I am personally advocating include an Office of Equity that is designed by a diverse array of CPSD stakeholders, resources to expand conflict resolution and restorative practices in schools, and enhanced career technical education (CTE). The Superintendent shares his proposed budget with the Committee on March 12th, so stay tuned…
(Vassal Lane Upper School hosted a wonderful Cultural Night last week.)
The Rindge School of Technical Arts (RSTA) is our district’s CTE program. As I see it, RSTA plays a critical role in our school district for two reasons. First, not all of our students want to - or can afford to - go to college right after graduating high school. There are many jobs that offer living wages and economic mobility for young people with industry or state recognized licenses. Second, all our schools should be engaging students in deep thinking, interdisciplinary, hands-on experiences. For both of these reasons, I submitted a motion with my colleagues Fred Fantini and Ayesha Wilson to review what is working in our RSTA program and what needs to evolve. The Committee will have a conversation about RSTA enrollment and outcomes as part of a budget workshop later this month.
There’s too much to share for a brief newsletter! To connect about inspiring student events and get more commentary on news, please be in touch via social media. You can find me @RachelforCambridge
What a month since our inauguration January 6th! I am truly enjoying serving as one of your School Committee Members, appreciating both my steep learning curve and early accomplishments.
As you know, advancing racial equity is a personal mission of mine. I believe we have a unique opportunity in this term - because of the work of the Building Equity Bridges movement, student activism and the broad community attention on issues of race - to become a more anti-racist district. With this clear priority and a sense of urgency, Committee Member Wilson and I introduced our first motion at our January 21st meeting. Motion 20-12 prioritizes anti-racist work, calls for robust response to each of the 12 areas outlined in the Building Equity Bridges commitments, requires a School Committee retreat by the end of March to determine how the Committee will advance particular commitments, and calls upon the Committee to partner with community stakeholders.
I was heartened to hear the widespread support for our motion during the public comment portion of the meeting. One parent called on the community to “bring fierce, unyielding urgency to our work… to be bold and creative.” Another reflected on the distance we have to go and how a mandate from the Committee would help us go further faster. Additional family members spoke to the need for a paradigm shift in the district. These parents were joined by the President of the Cambridge Education Association, the Principal of the Vassal Lane Upper School and the President of the Cambridge branch of the NAACP, who also each endorsed the BEB commitments and our motion.
On a related but distinct front, one of the Committee’s greatest responsibilities is approving the district’s annual budget. With five of the seven School Committee Members being new to our roles, the Superintendent’s team has spent much of this past month orienting us to the budget and organizing community forums to hear from educators and families about their priorities. Having participated in all of these meetings and forums, I am eager to see how the Superintendent’s proposed budget reflects the concerns of key stakeholders.
Finally, I am pleased to share that the Committee has decided to use gender neutral titles (I asked to be referred to as Member Rachel, so as not to be confused with my colleague Member (David) Weinstein). In addition to being an inclusive practice, I appreciate the collaborative spirit that went into this move, which bodes well for our ongoing work together.
My plan is to send this newsletter monthly. Between these updates, I hope you will remain engaged with the work. One easy way is to stay in touch via social media. You can find me on Facebook and Instagram @RachelforCambridge, Twitter @RachelforCamb. (I welcome emails and calls too!)
Thanks to you, in just a few days, I will be sworn-in as a Member of the Cambridge School Committee. What an honor and privilege to work with and for you to improve our schools.
As you may know, this is a particularly difficult time for our school community. Our students, teachers and many residents are in pain over how racist incidents have – or have not – been addressed in our school system. While I remain deeply troubled by the process used to respond to the School Committee incident with CRLS students last year, I believe we have an opportunity to move the needle on racial equity. In this moment, students, teachers, families, elected officials and district administration all acknowledge that bold, systemic change is needed. I ran for this office to work on racial equity and look forward to working with all of you, with fellow policy makers, students, teachers, and the Building Equity Bridges movement to leverage this opening. In fact, I did not wait to be sworn-in to share my perspective about how we need a new culture of accountability and healing: here is the public comment Members-Elect Wilson, Villarreal and I made collectively on December 10th.
On a different front, many of our neighbors are legitimately concerned about plans for the new Tobin/VLUS building. As the public comment I submitted to the City elaborates, I share the concerns about the size of the footprint and the loss of open space. In my mind, in addition to addressing these issues, we need a comprehensive facilities plan, one that looks forward at least 10-15 years and includes enrollment projections, programmatic shifts and equity throughout the city. That is, how should a new Tobin/VLUS building fit into citywide plans?
Two closing requests:
First, before the hard work is fully underway, please participate in the inauguration! I am excited to join School Committee Members Manikka Bowman, Fred Fantini, Ayesha Wilson, José Luis Rojas Villarreal, as well as our to-be-named new Mayor and colleague, this Monday, January 6th for our swearing in. We will gather in the Cambridge Public Library Main branch at 6p.
Second, I have no doubt that my learning curve will be steep in 2020. I ask that you help me have impact by sharing your reflections, questions and ideas. Please share this message with your friends and neighbors too.